The best book I've read all summer is The Origins of Virtue by Matt Ridley. The book is about cooperation in animals, primitive societies, our society...and why it exists at all. I'm reading it for the official reason that I'd like to understand better whether there's anything very much like morality in animals.
Ridley gives the reader a glimpse of disputes in anthropology, economics, and many other fields. He's generally a very entertaining and witty writer (besides being a clear, elegant, and colorful writer--he's my new writing hero). One sentence in the book really made me laugh. Ridley is explaining a certain raging debate between two schools of thought about why it is that, in hunter-gatherer societies, hunters share meat. Ridley says, of this debate--
Like all disagreements in academia, it raged so fiercely at its height...because the stakes were so small--there was only the subtlest of differences between the positions of the two schools.I often wondered, while sitting in seminar rooms in graduate school: why are people so ferocious during discussions of arcane matters in the philosophy of mind or language or metaphysics? Actually, there's a wide range of quirky and comical things that can be observed in a seminar room. Not only inexplicable rage, but pretentiousness, artificiality, self-importance.
I used to think I'd like to try writing fiction--maybe a comic novel set on the stage of of a philosophy department? It sounds hopeless, but it's already been done, and very well--there's The Mind-Body Problem by Rebecca Goldstein, with (as I recall) the Princeton philosophy department as the stage. Zadie Smith does a great job of capturing the comedy of academia in On Beauty.
A friend married to an academic told me she took offense at On Beauty's cast of ludicrous academic characters, but Zadie Smith is an excellent observer of academic foibles. People have written funny books about the ways of lawyers, lifeguards, mothers, rabbis. Why exempt professors?
As for Ridley's explanation--that academics gnash their teeth because so little is at stake. Hmm. That seems like the puzzle, not the explanation. Why gnash your teeth if very little's at stake? Surely it's a matter of egos in the balance, prestige on the line, the pressure to show you're the clever one, not your opponent. The competition for dominance. Cooperative talk isn't dazzling. So why engage in it?
But maybe Ridley has a point--if people didn't shout and scream, others might think it didn't matter much who's right. Sometimes, when all the dust settles, it really doesn't.
Now that I've finished Ridley's book I have to add: while it's all to the good that he pokes fun at various types of sentimental nonsense, Ridley isn't immune to sentimental nonsense himself. I love the irreverence about academia, as I said above. There's a great chapter in the book deriding the idea that native peoples are great respecters of nature and animals (he's got some great examples that suggest otherwise). Ridley rains on a lot of sentimental parades, and good for him. But when you get to the end of the book, you find him getting dewy-eyed about all the voluntary mutual support there'd be between citizens, if it weren't for the heavy hand of government. Get rid of the National Health Service in the UK, and everybody would be helping everybody else. Maybe some. But we see what life is like without national heathcare here in the US. It's nothing to get dewy-eyed about.